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Overcoming perfectionism in law

Too many lawyers are plagued by an unsustainable need to be the best at everything they are tasked with. Managing this trait is essential not only for personal wellbeing but also for professional success.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 14 September 2020 Corporate Counsel
Overcoming perfectionism in law
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By their nature, and as studies repeatedly show, lawyers tend to display perfectionist tendencies, which can and do have deleterious effects upon one’s holistic wellness.

“We engage in perfectionist thinking, we often won’t accept any achievement that is less than what we perceive to be as ‘perfect,’ and I put perfect in inverted commas there because it doesn’t really exist, there is no perfect, and if there is a fleeting moment, it’s unsustainable,” Megaport senior legal counsel Melissa Scott told Lawyers Weekly.

“I think that, as a profession, we find ourselves being very task-oriented. We move from task to task, we love to tick a box and quickly get onto the next thing, and we hold ourselves to a really high standard. So, I find that that creates a space where we measure productivity, and we use it as a badge of honour. We use the term busy: ‘I’m so busy, I’m so busy’. Busy is a badge of honour, and I think that that can all stem from this underlying need to be productive, to be seen to be productive, because that’s stemming from a place where we feel like we need to be perfect.”


Ms Scott’s journey with perfectionism

Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Ms Scott said perfectionism was “absolutely” a trait that she experienced and displayed, with it seeping into all aspects of her life.

“It’s something that I noticed two or three years ago…I would find myself feeling really uptight and anxious about tasks that I hadn’t done before, or that were new. Usually, there’s a healthy level of excitement and curiosity about how you’re going to do a task that you haven’t done before, but I found it was building up for me, and it was bubbling up to a place where I was procrastinating, because I didn’t know the next step, and I would try and buffer those feelings by just doing other things that were not at all effective for the task at hand,” she recounted.

I think when I found myself not wanting to try new things, and this is certainly outside of work as well, I was fearful that if I couldn’t do it and be perfect straight away, then I just wouldn’t do it at all. That could be as simple as trying to learn how to run, or taking on a passion project, because I didn’t know how to do it, and if I can’t be great, then I’m not doing it at all.”

Many lawyers suffer from perfectionism

It was a relief for Ms Scott, she noted, to learn that other legal professionals also suffer from such tendencies.

“I found that it most certainly was not a unique experience, I was not alone at all, particularly with my colleagues. I think that we found ourselves in a profession that encouraged some of these behaviours – attention to detail, the pursuit of excellence, and holding ourselves to a high standard. There can be that double-edged sword there,” she said.

“I did find comfort and solace in the fact that I was not alone in feeling that pressure to perform, and taking it on and internalising it in a way that actually did lead to fear of new things and to procrastination. I enjoyed talking it through with people that had a similar experience. It is so helpful to realise that there’s a systemic issue here in the way that our performance is judged and measured and our productivity is measured that can lead to this.”

Pandemic-inspired perfectionism

For many lawyers across the board, Ms Scott mused, the age of coronavirus may be exacerbating their already-ingrained tendencies towards traits such as perfectionism, causing a pile-on with other issues they are concerned about at this juncture.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the last six months have heightened our internal emotions, and anything that we may have been feeling this time last year and working through, it might not have come to a head, but now with this underlying sense of unease, uncertainty, I have no doubt that people may be feeling a heightened sense of feelings of perfectionism or fear of not doing things well enough. There’s job security to think of, people might be acting out of fear for trying to make sure that their work is as exceptional as possible so that they can keep their job and pay the bills,” she reflected.

In light of this, it is critical that lawyers exercise more self-compassion during this time, Ms Scott advised.

“Take a step back and say to ourselves, ‘Well, of course I’m feeling this way, look at what’s happening in the world and in the community and in the family, or even just within myself. Things are not normal; they haven’t been for some time’. And take that pressure off, actually let yourself have a breather and say, ‘Yeah, I’m actually tying myself up in knots here trying to deliver perfection, and that’s creating procrastination, it’s creating delay, perhaps my confidence is a bit shaken. It’s affecting my judgment’,” she said.

“These can all be, of course, unintended consequences, but they can be dangerous because at the end of the day they may lead to work that is delayed for the client, or even if you do meet your deadlines, you’re doing so in a way that it’s not sustainable, and it’s not supporting your mental wellbeing.”

Staving off perfectionist tendencies

While solutions and strategies to combat perfectionism may differ from person to person, Ms Scott said she has found there are some one-size-fits-all approaches for the unique vocational circumstances of lawyers.

“The first step is awareness, and noticing the language that you’re using when you’re talking to yourself and you’re having that internal thought process. Are you being critical? Are you being very difficult and very hard on yourself? Is nothing ever good enough for yourself? Do you tick the boxes and quickly move on to the next thing, postponing happiness until some future date when this is achieved? Because that just keeps on going, the mind is tricky and the goalposts will just keep on moving. You need to notice when the thoughts you’re having are actually negative or critical or affecting you in that way,” she said.

“Meditation is obviously an amazing tool. It’s something that’s, I think, becoming certainly much more popular. I use an app called Insight Timer that I just love. It’s free, or most of the features are free, and I use that daily for five, six, seven minutes, not a particularly long time, but it helps me quiet my mind and actually look at what’s happening in there and I can go, ‘Okay, that’s right, those thoughts are coming up again’.

“Having a shared understanding with colleagues and with friends, with mentors, with whoever it may be in your life that you can talk to, is fundamental. I think a problem shared is a problem halved, and often just speaking your truth about what you’re feeling and how it’s affecting your work can really just take that pressure off.”

Perfectionism is something that is innate in a lot of lawyers, Ms Scott mused, and is something such professionals will always have to be aware of and working on.

“It certainly doesn’t get easier, but you just get so much better at identifying the thoughts that you’re having that are not serving you, and then you’ve got a toolbox that you add to over the years, whatever it may be, that you can draw upon and pull out those tools to look at the thoughts that you’re having and to rectify them, and to get yourself back to a place where you’re talking very kindly to yourself, and you’re actually supporting yourself to go forward and not be completely frozen out of fear or having perfectionist thoughts about, ‘It’s all or nothing. If I can’t do it perfectly, I’m not doing it all’,” she said.

“I don’t think that it goes away, you just get better at observing, noticing, and you’ve got some tools to put that bully mind back in check. If I start noticing in myself all-or-nothing thinking, which is super common, I now have the language to notice that, to talk to myself and say, ‘Aha, there’s that old chestnut, it’s back again. Okay, no worries, I know how to handle this’. Have the conversation with yourself, and will you find over time that it will always come back to just a number of core fears that we all have as humans, and we all experience them differently.”

To listen to the full episode with Melissa Scott, click below:

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